1) The Loneliest Planet
My reactions to this film are unavoidably colored by the fact that it's based on a short story by Tom Bissell, who aside from being in my estimation an unimpeachable great writer is also a very dear friend of long standing. (Back in 2002, Tom and another pal who shall remain nameless were kind enough to stage The World's Smallest Intervention on my behalf, which didn't take at the time but for which I've become grateful.) So I just walk in to the screening feeling chuffed that a talented and distinctive screenwriter/director, Julia Loktev, decided to adapt Tom's story, "Expensive Trips Nowhere" (featured in his wonderful collection God Lives In St. Petersburg) in he first place.
The tale is not a complicated one; it's an account of a young Western couple's hiking trek across a part of Kazakhstan, and an incident that sheds a glaring light on their characters and their relationship. And then there's their relationship to the guide. Lotkev takes Tom's story and makes it her own; she mostly jettisons the elements of social critique (Tom lays out a lot of the couple's First-World-Problems meticulously throughout; in his story, they're also married, while in the film, they're engaged to be) and, most crucially, renders indeterminate the result of the event that in the story pretty much sunders...well, I don't want to give away too much.
My friend The Self Styled Siren isn't the first person to weigh in on the film with some frustration over the fact that the film's couple, played by the very appealing Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg (seen above with Bidzina Gujabidze, who plays their guide), never verbally address the elephant in the room after it shows up. "The movie explodes if one character turns to the other on one of the many arduous hikes and says 'What the hell...?'" If I may be allowed to play devil's advocate and represent what Hitchcock might be gratified to note as an anti-Plausible position, the fact that neither of the characters does utter any such thing might just be precisely the point. I'm only saying. In any case, what works like crazy here is both Loktev's pictorial sense and ability to ratchet up tension in distinctly unshowy ways; while dunderheads and the eyeless might be under the impression that nothing is happening when she cuts away to a ravishing long shot of the scenery and lets Richard Skelton's gorgeous, otherworldy ethnological not-quite-forgery music have its way with the movie, the rest of us will get the feeling, for sure. (And how's that for a Kael-like lunge at SPEAKING FOR THE "RIGHT" PEOPLE, huh? Um, maybe not.) Its narrative open-endedness seeks, I think, to engage the intuition of the viewer, which is something that I'm noticing certain viewers are coming to resent. But that's another issue for another piece.
2) You Are Not I
Sarah Driver's long-kind-of-lost 45-minute 1981 adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story, shot in Vampyr-inflected black-and-white by Driver's frequent collaborator Jim Jarmusch, and featuring a deliberately bugging-the-hell-out-of-the-back-of-your-brain-like-an-alarm-clock-you-can't-shut-off electronic score by Phil Kline, often plays like the New York Underground answer to Carnival of Souls, which I mean entirely as a compliment.
3) Le Havre
2006's Lights in the Dusk was a real rut in Aki Kaurismaki's path to sweet-and-quirkily-warmhearted-old-fogeydom, but this very satisfying quasi-caper is an exhilarating rebound that places him squarely and touchingly in that territory. The story of a fairytale community in the title burg that rallies round to help a delightfully taciturn and well-mannered young undocumented African immigrant reach his destination across the channel, its sure pace and consistent comic understatement nicely set up some of the director's most casually daring absurdist tropes in years. Filtering a genuine contemporary European social concern through his wry and slightly addled (by what I have no idea, I'm sure) sensibility seems to have charged Aki's batteries up a bit. Nice going.
4) We Can’t Go Home Again
What's that guy in back of Woody Allen say about the new Fellini, that it's "very indulgent?" Yeah, that's what he says. One would not, honestly, need to be forgiven if those very words, and with the exact same inflection yet, flashed through one's own mind at various points at this film signed by "Us," supervised by Nicholas Ray when he was a filmmaking instructor at SUNY Binghamton in the early 1970s. I mean, how IS one to characterize a film in which the one-time Hollywood director is depicted ineptly attempting suicide? (Although admittedly the attempt does produce one of the film's biggest laughs, when the magesterial white-haired wreck Ray, fumbling with some rope, grumbles "I've made thirteen Westerns and I still have no idea how to tie a noose.") But again, I think the indulgence is the point. A multi-frame expectoration of footage of himself and his students interrogating themselves and him and each other mixed with ruminations on the political upheavals of the prior years mixed with reflections on the increasingly bitter reality that home/America/a sense of belonging/what have you is dissolving into the corrosive acid of ever-mounting cultural and sexual and political fragmentation, Home is both an effort to find coherence/community and an avowal of the possible impossibility of doing so. So of course it's going to be indulgent. It is also frequently kind of tedious, and frequently kind of dazzling, and frequently kind of infuriatingly self-pitying. It's quite a few provocative things, but many of its qualities won't be immediately discernable to anybody who's not already a Ray-head, so consider this a warning.
One of those pictures that one could look at and say, "Well, sure, of course, with the time, the place, and the people, anybody could go in and make a good film." Of course, if you've seen enough docs that had the time, the place, and the people, and the filmmakers STILL managed to fuck things up, you know that's a glib assessment. So all praise to director Stefano Savona, who's assembled an incredibly engaging and provocative moving snapshot of a Cairo's square's chanting, rock-throwing, cell-phone-and-computer-checking, social-media-enabled contribution to Arab spring, featuring conversations between young firebrands and monologues from old blowhards who are still hugely touching for all their blow-hardedness. Not a comprehensive survey of political perspectives and tensions nor a prospectus on what's ahead for Egypt or what the West is in store for, but rather the vital story of some people gathered together, and their crucial passions, and how they united under those passions.
6) The Turin Horse
I've always looked at the anecdote about Nietsche and that poor horse as an exemplary paradoxical parable about how once/if you reach total consciousness/compassion over all the overwhelming pointless suffering in this world, the only possible reaction is not that you become a better/nicer person, but that you fall into the grip of an absolutely paralyzing madness (which can sometimes be helped even further along by dementia courtesy of [maybe] tertiary syphilis). And those are the breaks. Aiiee. In any event, my biggest problem with Bela Tarr's apparent cinematic swan song is that its perspective doesn't quite jibe with my own above interpretation of the whole equine kerfuffle. Still and all, I found this cinematically virtuosic, narratively minimal, and genuinely, albeit peculiarly, gripping almost-two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white account of the end of the world as disaffected father and daughter and horse know it, absolutely superb. Even though it didn't galvanize me as much as some prior Tarr films, even including the rather more overtly problematic The Man From London, have. I think maybe it wasn't meant to; there's a peculiar serenity at the center of all its considerable dread. I should like to see it again soon.
See a bit below. I think it's worth reiterating that this is a satiric farce, and deserves to be considered as such. I think it's also worth reiterating that People Are Fucking Stupid. I read somewhere (I can't find it now...does the fact that I can't link mean that I'm Doing That Thing Again) someone complaining that the piece makes no sense because the one couple could just LEAVE and they don't and it's always the lamest pretext compelling them to re-enter the apartment. Yeah, The Return Of The Plausibles. Someday I'd like to see somebody make a film in which all of the action unfolds in the most absolutely plausible and true-to-life fashion possible. Oh, yeah, they already made that film and it's fucking called Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and I bet The Plausibles won't like that picture much either, albeit maybe for different reasons. What is worth noting, although not having seen the play I can only speculate rather than accurately cite stuff, is that Polanksi seems to have some fun coming up with little bits of business to nudge that characters back into the apartment where the main action (such as it is) is largely set, including a sly couple of shots involving a fellow tenant, or Tenant, that will evoke a chuckle in some and perhaps outrage in others.
8) A Separation
A very nifty piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand from writer-director Asghar Fahadi, this Iranian domestic drama takes a home trauma and ratchets it up to a kind of judicial thriller. If Michael Haneke were filming this scenario, he'd hold his shots in such a way as to goad the viewer into looking deeper into them. (See certain of the views in Caché.) If the director were Hitchcock, he'd foreground certain objects in such a way as to set off the audience's intrigue about them. (See the telephone in Dial "M" For Murder.) Fahadi's seemingly naturalistic shooting and editing style is deceptively simple; he gives, or seems to give, no particular weight to any given object or action, and all the while he's stowing away things that will be vitally important later on. If the film's second half is a very tense round of "Find What The Sailor Has Hidden," the first half shows the, um, sailor hiding everything in plain sight. Mongo impressed. Fuckin' A, you definitely need to see this.
9) Living in the Material World
As it was for my friend Tony Dayoub, this picture was an easy sell for me, whose first LP was Beatles '65, gifted to me at Christmas 1964 when I was all of five years old. A satisfyingly lengthy musical and social and cultural history as well as a biography, it's suitably empathetic—if anyone can reveal George Harrison's Jake LaMotta side, it's the film's organizational intelligence/spirit Martin Scorsese—and a little more plastically and conceptually clever/resourceful than its goes-down-easy narrative initially indicates. Not strictly linear by any means, it gets to the many places it wants to go via dovetails that are simultaneously thematic and chronological, and it accomplishes an awful lot via implication/example, c.f. the frankly horrific live concert footage the film cuts to right after Klaus Voorman brings up the subject of cocaine for the first time. The picture is sometimes unusually candid and finally very moving, and the sound mix is spectacular. As a bonus, Jackie Stewart as you've never seen him before. No, really.